The Pineapple Thief - Magnolia Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothMagnolia, The Pineapple Thief’s 10th studio release, is an album complex enough to be progressive, but simple enough to be accessible, and warrants a number of listens to truly appreciate its well-constructed layers.

Artist: The Pineapple Thief
Label: Kscope
Time: 12 tracks / 47:00 minutes

The Pineapple Thief, a progressive band formed in 1999 by frontman Bruce Soord, are slotted to release their 10th studio album early next week.  Entitled Magnolia, the new record will be officially released through Kscope on Monday (9/15) in the UK, and Tuesday in the US and Canada.  Magnolia is a landmark release for the band, not only because it is their tenth, but also because – as the official press release states – it marks an “important turning point for the band, as they expand their musical horizons beyond the progressive sphere.”  While some of TPT’s older material definitely had a more experimental bend, and their tracks were typically much longer in length (songs on Magnolia average just 4:00 minutes), there has always been a simplistic, very direct element to TPT’s music.  That is not in any way a slight at their writing, but an observation that while they have always been experimental, there has always been a conspicuous absence of ridiculously technical passages or unnecessary, bloated guitar solos in their music.  Magnolia takes that general approach even further, being an album that is only 3/4’s of an hour long and capable of being absorbed in a single listen, but multilayered and intriguing enough to warrant more.

This album also serves as an introduction to the band’s new drummer, Dan Osborne, who was heavily involved in Magnolia’s production, contributing both fresh energy as well as new ideas to the band’s songwriting approach.  Completing TPT’s lineup are Jon Sykes (bass) and Steve Kitch (keys), in addition to Bruce Soord’s guitars and vocals.  The string arrangements scattered across Magnolia are credited to Andrew Skeet (The Divine Comedy), who is a regular contributor to TPT records.  Also worth noting is the fact that the album’s mixing was done by engineer Adam Noble, who has previously worked on albums from the likes of Placebo and Paul McCartney.

“Simple As That” kicks off the album with an ambient introduction, constructed on Soord’s back-and-forth eighth note picking and Kitch’s faint synth patches.  Throughout the tense first verse, Soord’s voice is melancholic and searching, gaining traction and emphasis as the song ages.  Huge, double-tracked guitars explode into the varied-meter chorus, moving in a syncopated, half-time feel.  Catchy and intense, “Simple As That” is due to be the album’s first single, and is certainly the most bombastic composition on the album, running the dynamic gamut and establishing a baseline for TPT’s newly evolving sound.

The introduction and double first verse to “Alone at Sea” – Magnolia’s longest track (5:22) – is built on an electronic keyboard patch, supported by bass and drums, grooving together in tight 7/8.  Soord’s guitar kicks in toward the end of each verse and consumes the choruses – again with enormous, double-tracked chords.  A brief experimental interlude follows the first chorus: piercing guitar lead overlaying a second guitar’s driving riff – the same that will carry the song to its conclusion.  “Alone at Sea” is a strong followup to “Simple As That,” another song with enough movement to keep Magnolia’s opening momentum high.

“Don't Tell Me,” the third track, is another up-tempo piece – again in 7/8, again built upon a keyboard introduction.  Soord’s guitar lead filters into the mix before acoustic guitar takes the helm, settling the track into its groove.  Synth and strings create a tapestry behind the rest of the band, and fill space on the latter half of the song with gorgeous violin orchestration.  The ending is abrupt, coming to an unanticipated halt after a false dynamic build.

The album’s title track is driven by muddy acoustic guitar, overlaid with spacey, wavering chords on the electric, and a pervasive string section.  The overall feel of “Magnolia” is very David Bowie or John Wesley (Porcupine Tree).  This is a strong track: straightforward, singable, and well-orchestrated.

“Seasons Past,” a quiet acoustic guitar ballad in 3/4, has a bit of a Soup vibe in its emotive orchestration.  I love the simplicity to this track -- the gentle strings and tender vocals, the restrained guitar and piano work, the anticipated first beat of each measure, and the contrast between Soord’s voice and Sykes’ bassline.  A gentle guitar solo briefly interrupts the verse/chorus progression, before the final refrain meanders to the conclusion.

The first minute of “Coming Home” is ominous, focused entirely on plucked electric guitar, hanging dark bass notes beneath Soord’s half-whispered lyrics.  The track ascends to a march tempo for its latter half, accented with shaker and tambourine, and undergirded by quarter notes in the bass.  Strings also play a role in the downslope of “Coming Home,” buoying the final seconds of the track to an emotive conclusion.

All four-and-a-half minutes of “The One You Left to Die” are driving motion.  The entire track rides constant eighth notes in Jon Sykes’ bass and down-strumming on the electric guitar.  Strings and secondary guitar insert at intervals.  It isn’t until the chorus at the 3:00-minute mark that the song finally breaks out of its pattern and reaches a dynamic climax.

After several tracks with softer introductions, “Breathe” kicks off immediately with Tom Morello-esque guitar work, before dropping into the gentle ambience of the verses, punctuated with unison bass and bass drum stabs.  The refrains are double-timed affairs, each time returning to the introduction’s riff, and the ending is a sudden, hard stop that – if I may – leaves the listener breathless.

“From Me” is the shortest track on the album, barely reaching two-and-a-half minutes in length.  It is a sparse piano ballad, deepened by orchestral strings and ending with eerie dissonance, serving as an interlude of sorts between the hard-hitting “Breathe” and the more energetic “Sense of Fear,” which is a guitar-driven composition.  Steve Kitch’s keyboards add an electronic feel to the verses, and Soord unloads a sweeping guitar lead overtop the final refrain.  Thematically, the song is concerned with the fact that humanity’s experience of fear would suggest that we’re “not alone here.”

“A Loneliness,” perhaps my favorite track on Magnolia, features some gorgeous textural contrast between bass and guitar, supplemented by the icy clarity of Kitch’s piano parts, and also boasts some well-layered vocal harmonies as well.  Another ballad, “Loneliness” is nicely paced in an honest and laid-back 4/4, guided by Osborne’s simple drum work and shaker.

The album’s final track, “Bond,” is a strong conclusion.  Kicking of with a march tempo – Osborne varying a cadence on the snare, partnered with minimalistic acoustic guitar – the track gradually moves from the measured verse to the tense refrain, maintaining the album’s overarching sense of burden.  A trumpet finds a voice in the mix following the second chorus, and the final moments of the track are structured around the string section, punctuated by cymbal work on the drums, until the ultimate fade-out into guitar feedback.

There’s a lot to be said for an album as succinct as this one.  Magnolia isn’t long, but it is dense.  These songs are well-packaged and bursting with intensity, vitality, and honesty.  This is an album complex enough to be progressive, but simple enough to be accessible.  The Pineapple Thief are a band who have succeeded in finding a balance between prog and pop, building a bridge between the technical complexity of progressive rock and the succinct, unpretentious elements of popular music.  Magnolia expands their sound to something not far removed from from the likes of Muse or Death Cab for Cutie, and boasts an accessibility that some of their earlier albums did not.  That sense of simplicity is deceptive, however: Magnolia is constructed of well-hidden layers that only reveal themselves through successive listens.  While definitely not as quirky as some of their other material, TPT’s new album is far from disappointing – even to a prog guy.  This is a collection of songs with stunning, often esoteric beauty, characterized by the type of blunt delivery that makes a band memorable.

Justin Carlton